Could Ferris be wheeled into a secondrow?

Fri, Feb 18, 2011, 00:00

We are in the season of crazy politics, so maybe we need to try a crazy idea with the one unit that is truly functioning: the backrow.

SOMETIMES I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits. Some years back I was in the stands in Donnybrook when the coach of the day gestured to the sub scrumhalf (a former All Black) to tog off for a run. Little Stu turned to the stadium clock, which had five minutes left to play, turned back to the coach and simply shook his head. Staying put.

Given an opportunity of one second against France in Aviva last Sunday I’m sure we would all take it. I’m also sure that five seconds would be beyond us all, only just.

That said, I’m not sure what Leo Cullen felt or how much his five seconds cost the IRFU. It does, however, raise the question of the bench and its use, and, with a real sticky visit to Edinburgh next week, the starting XV. The returns of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble will make that selection even stickier. The cabinet reshuffle that will occur with Bowe’s return may have a huge effect, and a whole new backline could emerge.

Last Saturday was a magnificent effort by our national team to beat one of the big boys. The fact France are far from the all-conquering team we expect to witness is immaterial. We lost and we should have won.

We lost because we consistently handed the French ample opportunity to kick points. The penalty count, or lack of it, has long been a badge of honour for these brilliant players. Irish teams of the past, particularly under Eddie O’Sullivan, kept penalties down to single figures. So what is the source of this ill-discipline?

To be clear, my view of “discipline” is not control of anger but ruthless pursuit of excellence. The role of the referee is to change the behaviour of players who otherwise would break the law. His interpretation is the only valid one and Ireland failed to adapt to him, as confusing as he was. We failed to remain ruthless.

The good news is that muscle has a memory and this behaviour will change (and hopefully the referee’s). In the meantime, what can enhance our progress?

The assets we have are under-used and the assets we’ll soon have through return from injury need to be embraced. We still need to get more from the ball, and the answer lies in the front five. We are in the season of craziness (transfers), where players are unsure of their futures. We are also in the season of crazy politics, so maybe a crazy idea with the one unit that is truly functioning: the backrow.

Clearly Jamie Heaslip is crucial and a certainty at number eight. Seán O’Brien is following closely, but in what position? David Wallace had a super game against the French, and then there’s Stephen Ferris to accommodate at some stage. At 6ft 4in and 17st 2lb, Ferris is the exact height as Mick Galway, who played 41 times in the secondrow for Ireland. Nathan Hynes made the switch from the “row” to the flank for Scotland, so why not the other way for Ferris? Put it this way: it is less a jump for Ferris to make than for O’Brien to move into the openside.

Who would lose out in the row? The front five require more time on the ball. That’s different from ball-carriers. A ball-carrier has a specific role in his position but puts himself into the ball’s way regularly. Time on the ball is when the front-five player naturally gets on the ball, utilises his physique, creating space to allow quicker ball-carriers to exploit the space.

I think Ferris can provide this role.

What then of the lineout? Judging on last Saturday’s Irish effort, the traditional set-up is a thing of the past. Donncha O’Callaghan set up at the tail with Heaslip at the front several times. Number eight Imanol Harinordoquy is France’s main lineout target, the remainder decoys. Of course, the last thing Mike Ross needs is to depower the scrum in the secondrow. He may lack in technique but certainly not power. Failing that move, Ferris should remain on the bench if fit.

Aside from his brilliant try against France, concern still surrounds Tomás O’Leary at scrumhalf. Combined with the tactics employed in Rome, our midfield and outside backs received precious few opportunities. Things improved in the Aviva, but the flow of ball and split-second decision-making are still too sluggish.

Is this all O’Leary’s fault? Not at all, but his team-mates play differently when Eoin Reddan or, especially, Peter Stringer is at the base. Like the referee, a very speedy and accurate scrumhalf can change behaviour and create momentum.

We continue to appear to have failed to grasp the vast asset that is the bench. Ronan O’Gara has proved how invaluable his role remains, whether as a starter or sprung from the bench. I wonder is there a subs policy in place for the remainder? I’m not referring to what time, if at all, a sub arrives on the pitch, but a subs game plan. The outhalf who comes on has a huge advantage, especially one of O’Gara’s class. He has had an hour to spot the weaknesses not only of the opposition’s game but also of Ireland’s.

I’d love to see the natural halfbacks working together. Come Edinburgh, start Reddan or Stringer with Sexton and have O’Gara finish off the job. Tonight, against Edinburgh, although at a lower level, watch how much space Stringer affords the outside backs.

In the first article of this season I highlighted my man to watch and asked, with one Six Nations to go before RWC 2011, does Tony Buckley finally realise how important he is to Irish rugby? Unfortunately the magic is about to leave the building, and more’s the pity. How he will fare in the English Premiership – not to mention the trauma of the “real” world – only time will tell.

I do wish him the best of luck and I will truly miss him about the place every week, swatting monsters at will, defying physics with the ball in hand and trundling forward when the mood takes him. I’ll especially miss his player toss in Biarritz and that tackle on Richie McCaw. Good luck Mushy!